When is the last time you tried to make sense of a 637-line municipal budget file?
Until recently, that is exactly what the citizens of Lviv, in Western Ukraine, had available to them.
Believe it or not, in the context of Ukraine, this was a step forward. Before 2013, under the Yanukovych regime, the idea of a municipal budget available to download would have been unthinkable. But thanks to a number of open data and open budget laws passed in the last year, times are changing.
Combatting corruption through openness is critical to the country’s reform process.
In many ways, cities offer a logical front line for this fight. It is at the municipal level that citizens can become engaged in understanding how money gets spent and why. And they can track if promises are kept.
The trick is in the execution. In this context, making data open is only the first step; making it useful and comprehensible is even more important — and often poses the biggest challenge.
Start local and build from there
According to a recent study, in 2014, local government officials in Ukraine were less open than in 2013 about their activities and in their daily interaction with citizens. Opening up access to budgets and public procurement processes at the municipal level would be a great way of tackling this problem. However, much of the information is only available in hardcopy, making it difficult to access and harder for civil society and local stakeholders to analyze and interpret. When information is available online, it is often difficult to find and hidden amongst piles of other data sets. Once a tenacious searcher has located the information, it is generally presented as a long text document or a virtually unusable spreadsheet, littered with specialized financial terminology that the average citizen would struggle to understand.
The result? More and more data is available, but it’s hard to find and present in a comprehensible way.
Transparency activists and journalists argue that the budgets are still not truly open and that as a consequence citizens are unable to actively participate in forming and monitoring local government spending. More and more, citizens’ groups are pushing for better access, greater transparency and effective public control over local spending, as a way to combat corruption and as part of building healthy democratic communities.
Data visualizations simplify citizen interactions
In 2014, Internews implemented a pilot project called “Open Budget,” in cooperation with UNDP in Ukraine, to increase local government budget transparency and promote civic engagement. The pilot began with a series of workshops to answer the question, “What do people want from open budgets?” and to ensure that the platform would be designed to suit users from a variety of backgrounds.
In these workshops, it quickly became clear that citizens do not understand the budgeting process, making it hard for them to influence budget priorities. The listening sessions with civic activists, local officials and journalists revealed two key questions. First, they wanted to understand how to interpret the numbers and codes in city budget files. Second, they wanted to understand the stages of budget creation and get informed about what emerged from each milestone so that they could engage in the process.
With this information in hand, the Open Budget project team developed a free, user-friendly online tool that allows local governments to present budget information through a variety of graphic data visualizations. The open-source tool was launched in the beginning of 2015. It consists of two independent components: 1. Budget visualization (up to 10 types of visualization for both revenues and expenses of the city budget); 2. Calendar of the budget cycle (budget estimation and drafting, public discussion, approval, execution and reporting).
The program proposes possible visualizations and generates the code to embed the graphics into official city websites. Today, any municipality that wants to can access the tool online and upload their data on city expenditures and revenues into the system.
“The reports on budget execution were regularly presented through the Lviv city council website. However, the reports were just general figures, such as expenditures on education or communal services,” said Lina Mykolayiv, Deputy Director of Finance Policy in Lviv City Council.
“From now on, the citizens will see the detailed expenses — for each school or kindergarten. The citizens can also can participate in budget formation and submit proposals on funds distribution. This builds trust and is another step to maximize the transparency of the budget process in the city.”
Lviv also launched a survey asking citizens what information is missing in their budget visualizations. Lviv city plans to improve the presentation of the city budget based on this feedback from the public.
So far seven Ukrainian cities are using the budget visualizer. The hope is that many more will follow, as part of the efforts to make Ukrainian government more accountable to its citizens.
The next step
Helping local government to get better at presenting their budgets in a comprehensible way is just the first part of the puzzle. Once the data has been simplified and is easier to understand, that’s when journalists and transparency activists can find out what story that information is telling about local government competence and trustworthiness; they’ll inform the public and start holding elected officials to greater accountability. What does that data tell local communities about how their local government is spending on health facilities, schools, local infrastructure? How does their region compare to other regions with similar or different numbers of inhabitants? This can be the start of a story of how local elected officials decide on priorities, keep them honest, and oblige them to think more carefully about whether they are getting it right for the community they serve.
This project was supported by Google and carried out in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program.
Through the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning, Internews has invested in internal capacity to support project teams in pushing the limits and come up with new solutions. Since 2011, Innovation Advisors have worked with Internews field offices and communities in Africa, Asia, Europe & Eurasia, and the Middle East & North Africa to develop pilot projects that explore new technologies and tools that allow citizens, journalists, online activists and policymakers to better understand and apply data, to gain access to more or better information, and to communicate more effectively with each other.
Banner photo: View of Lviv, Ukraine. Credit: Internews
(This story was originally posted on Medium.)